In her novel Room, Emma Donoghue let us see the world from the vantage point of a little boy in an 11-by-11-foot room. In the stories gathered in Astray, Donoghue busts loose, returning to her roots in historical fiction by going forth into the wider world.
Donoghue’s fellow travelers are voyagers who, between 1639 and 1968, left the world they knew for undiscovered countries from which they never returned. Each of their stories is introduced by a date and locale and followed by a brief snippet, ranging from a few lines to a few paragraphs, in which Donoghue grounds her flights of fancy in the history inspiring them.
In the initial section of Astray, each such flight involves an escape from confinements which, while less dramatic than the one in Room, has narrowed their protagonists’ choices.
In the first, an elephant and his keeper leave London’s zoo, bound for new adventures in America. In another, a Jewish woman in 18th-century New York confronts her own alienation in a culture that doesn’t understand her.
In Last Supper at Brown’s, a slave and his master’s wife contemplate a new life. In Onward, a young woman longs for a chance to start over — away from the hypocritical world of Victorian England, in which she was forced into prostitution after she and her brother were orphaned.
Each of these stories confirms Donoghue’s observation, in an illuminating afterword, that migrants are often strangers in the land they leave as well as the one they seek — “strays,” to use her word, who cross legal, racial, and sexual boundaries as well as geographic ones.
Men realize that they love other men. A woman becomes a cowboy in untamed Arizona. Another woman becomes a cigar-chomping politician in the Tammany Hall machine.
Not all of Donoghue’s characters can handle the freedom their adventures make possible. In the middle and final sections of Astray, men and women trying on new identities often retreat in fear upon seeing what they find.
In the collection’s three best stories, Donoghue’s characters persevere, coming to accept that their journeys into new territories of the self will necessarily be partial: incomplete, limited by how little any of us can ever see and therefore necessarily including loss.
In Counting the Days, Donoghue draws from surviving letters of an Irish couple as she journeys west from famine-blighted Ireland to join him in Canada; we see all that they share despite their many differences — along with the distance keeping them apart.
The Gift — comprised of invented letters — features a Jersey City mother “whose only crime was poverty” and the elderly Iowa couple who raise her daughter when she herself cannot. When the mother’s finances improve, the Iowans refuse to give the beloved girl back. Donoghue successfully sees things from both sides, forcing us to do so as well.
In What Remains, which closes the collection, an 85-year-old Toronto woman wrestles with the growing dementia in her female partner of 60 years. A sculptor, Florence looks on her beloved Queenie’s face and sees a “blank, like a block of marble that’s never been touched by the chisel.”
But Florence knows there is a “shape locked inside the marble,” and this beautiful story helps us see it, giving us a picture of a charismatic and vibrant woman. This collection is filled with such acts of imaginative sympathy — each chiseling all that one can, from what Donoghue aptly describes as “the shadowy mass of all that’s been lost.”